Well, they are.
I spent much of June running around the West Bank looking at the regulatory environment for agricultural exports. (Yeah, it's taken me a month to get around to blogging about it.) This involved visiting farms, greenhouses, packing houses, and even a date processing plant. Up until then, I didn't even know that dates needed processing. I thought -- insofar as I thought about it at all, which I guess I didn't -- it's a fruit, it comes off a tree, you eat it. Turns out, no. Lot of stuff has to happen first.
Anyway, dates. The things that look like giant raisins, yah? They grow on date palms, which are medium sized palm trees that like a hot arid climate. Popular across the Middle East, growing in popularity in the West as a healthy snack food. Nice little hit of tasty calories, lot of fiber, some vitamins. In Muslim countries they're a traditional food for Ramadan, of which more shortly.
Date palms are desert plants, but dates are a thirsty crop: if you want to grow dates commercially the palms will soak up astonishing amounts of water. That's because the date palm adjusts its output of fruit to match the availability of water. Palms can survive perfectly well on very little water, but then they won't produce a lot of dates. So whenever you see a date palm plantation -- and they're a very common sight in Israel and Palestine, especially along the Jordan valley -- you're looking at a lot of water.
Dates come in a lot of different varieties and a lot of different qualities. This gets complicated fast; you can have dates of Variety X, of quality A, and size so-and-so, and all those things can vary. The Jordan Valley is one of two places in the world where it's possible to grow "Medjool" dates, which are sort of the Rolls Royce of dates. (The other place is, of course, California.) Medjools are large and unusually tasty dates, and people will pay a hefty premium for them. So the Palestinians have been planting a lot of date palms in the last few years. This effort is complicated by the fact that (1) the Israelis control most of the water in the West Bank, so it's not easy to get enough water for date plantations; and, (2) most of the best locations for date palms are in Israeli-controlled Area C.
Anyway. One measurement of a date's quality is the looseness of its skin: the tighter the skin, the better the date. Ordinary dates have a lot of air bubbles under their skin; high-quality dates have very few. This is partly an aesthetic judgment, and partly a practical -- loose-skinned dates are more vulnerable to molds and other infections, and are generally more fragile. So when dates are picked, even if they're all of the same variety, they they need to be sorted by size and quality. Remarkably, this is a process that can be automated; the largest plantations have date-sorting machines. They're big, expensive things that use pretty high technology. Dates bruise easily, so you can't just drop them through holes, right? So, they're gently jostled and tumbled into little cradles on a conveyor belt, and then they're weighed and measured and a laser sensor checks for things like bruising and air bubbles.
I mentioned that dates are a traditional food for Ramadan. Apparently they're mentioned in the Koran? So it's very common for people to break their fast at sunset with a dish of dates. Makes good sense, too -- dates are a mild food and a quick healthy hit of fruit sugar. Pretty much perfect for warming up a long-empty stomach before settling down for a proper meal. So there's a huge demand for dates across the Muslim world at Ramadan.
But: Ramadan moves slowly around the calendar from year to year. And for the next decade or so, Ramadan will be coming before the world's main date harvest, which happens in the northern hemisphere in September and October. This year, for example, Ramadan is late July through mid-August, so it will end just before the date harvest gets going. So there's this immense demand for dates which is in conflict with the calendar. There are two possible solutions: one, build a lot of cold storage warehouses to keep dates for 10 months. This is actually happening. Two, plant dates in the Southern hemisphere, in places like Namibia and southern Chile, so that you can get a harvest just before Ramadan. This is starting to happen. The lead time on date palms is about six years, so some long-term planning is required.
What else -- oh, the red palm weevil. This is a large bug, originally native to Southeast Asia, that has been spreading across the world since the 1980s. (It just turned up in California a couple of years ago.) It's a nasty thing. The adult nibbles on palm fronds, the larva drill right into the heartwood and start chewing away. The larva are large, and so voracious that one method of detection is to put a microphone up against a tree and listen for the sound of them chewing. Unchecked, an infestation can wipe out a plantation in a few months. There are the usual defenses -- traps, spraying, biocontrol agents -- with the usual drawbacks.
So, dates: interesting! Or so it seems to me.